Issue: Volume: 23 Issue: 2 (Feb 2000)

The Fourth Wave

One of the trends cited last month in this column as among the most significant in the new Age of the Internet was that application service providers (ASPs) will change the face of the CAD industry. In the same issue, we previewed the first CAD-oriented ASP tool to be announced, Alibre Design from Alibre Inc. (see Spotlight, January 2000, pg. 8). This new service, built expressly for engineering collaboration over the Internet, will offer 3D mechanical CAD software, product data management, real-time collaboration, and, according to Alibre, will cost users about $100 per month when it goes “live” next month.

Now, another 3D MCAD system designed "from the ground up" for Internet-based collaboration has been announced by CollabWare Corp. Called GS-Design, the new service-originally developed at Lockheed Martin to manage large and complex aerospace design projects-has a program architecture, subscription pricing scheme, and marketing strategy similar to that of Alibre Design. What's more, the service has already gone live, though its user interface is undergoing a much-needed overhaul.

What's so significant about these two fledgling firms? Do they expect to compete with established vendors such as Parametric Technology Corp. (PTC), Unigraphics Solutions, and Dassault Systemes-which have been developing Web-collaboration tools of their own? Actually, the heads of Alibre and CollabWare say they have no intention of trying to steal customers in aerospace, automotive, and consumer-product corporations away from the 3D CAD giants. Rather, they have their eyes on a bigger prize: upgrading the millions of 2D-based suppliers of large corporations to their 3D CAD software. "There are several hundred thousand designers using 3D design tools, but an order of magnitude more in the supply chain doing 2D work," says Paul Grayson, CEO of Alibre. "We want to elevate that group so manufacturers can work more collaboratively with more suppliers."

For years, existing CAD vendors have tried every conceivable tactic-including turning training on their systems into video games and giving away major portions of their software for free-to coax the masses to make the leap to 3D. But these measures have largely failed as the cost of entry to the 3D world for these users seemed too high, not only to purchase the software, but to maintain it and train their employees to use it. Now, as this group sees the competitive realities of collaborating over the Internet with manufacturers in 3D, they may view this new technology as a low-cost way to make the transition.

In fact, in terms of introducing new ranks of users to new capabilities on a new platform, this approach could represent the next wave of MCAD software. The first wave was Autodesk's AutoCAD, a simple, PC-based 2D program that brought legions of engineers into the computer era. The second wave was PTC's Pro/Engineer, a Unix-based parametric solid modeler that enabled mainstream users to capture design intent by defining features rather than mere geometry. The third was the advent of Windows NT-based 3D MCAD products, such as SolidWorks and SolidEdge, that gained a huge market share by providing ease of use, a standard user interface, and a host of third-party add-on tools.

By offering 3D modeling and collaboration services designed from the outset with the Internet in mind, ASPs may create the fourth wave of MCAD software. And if these two start-ups, and the line of other ASPs forming in the wings, deliver on the promise of ease of use, robustness, security, and interoperability-the face of CAD will be changing sooner than expected.

Phil LoPiccolo: Editor-in-Chief